How We Paid Off Our Debt With Meal Planning

Credit cards are something I grew up with.  They were a normal part of life.  My parents used them for just about everything and I learned to do the same.  The problem is that the debt adds up.  Quick.  And before you know it the amount you owe seems insurmountable to pay off anytime soon.  Add to that college loans, vehicle payments, and a mortgage and, well, you are working to pay your monthly payments.

Years ago when we found ourselves with a large amount of credit card debt and a little left on an auto loan  (combined total was just over $10,000) we were struggling with where to find the money to pay it off.  With moderate living expenses, we were just making it week-to-week.  My husband temporarily picked up a part-time job in addition to his full-time job (until we realized he made hardly anything once taxes were paid....), and I worked full-time while finishing up my college degree.  We had tracked two months of our spending (what a scary and time-consuming exercise but so worthwhile), made the usual cuts, (eating out, coffee/snacks purchased out, limiting activities to free activities, creating a clothing budget, etc.) but it didn't leave us with enough to put extra toward our credit cards to make much of an impact.

I stared and stared at our new-to-us budget.  One thing that continued to jump out at me was the amount we were spending at the grocery store.  But HOW do you cut it?  I tried the couponing thing but struggled with both the time to make good use of them and finding coupons for what we were eating.  I tried following store sales, but made the crucial mistake of also purchasing all of our additional groceries (which were in no way the lowest prices) at the same store for convenience.  I had also tried meal planning and just couldn't stick with it.

So I began looking back through my notes, reading the books again that were inspiring me to pay off the debt and I decided that I had to not only give meal planning a try again, but I had to figure out what my stumbling blocks were and fix them.  ASAP!  I was determined to do this and so I did.

And it was difficult.

Some days I wanted to throw my hands up in the air and revert back to what I knew best.  Spending money without a budget.  Some days I wanted to just go buy new clothes and shoes to make myself feel better.  But I didn't, and I kept on trying.

So, back to meal planning I went and found that I just needed to keep plugging away at it and eventually it would become habit and, therefore, much easier.  And it did.

Being debt-free allows you options.  It also allows you to live in the present.  I've previously written about debt holding you in the past because you are paying for the past, rather than allowing you to live in the now or prepare for the future.  Debt forces us to stay in jobs we don't like because of the security of the paycheck, and keeps us from living the life we really want.  Although debt is sometimes used to try to live that life we dream about, reality soon sets in when we realize how many years it will take to pay it off and how much our current lifestyle is now impacted because of the spending of the past.

Figuring out how to live life without the use of any credit card is, by far, the best decision we've ever made.  Regardless of how difficult it's been at times.

A Few Things I Learned About Myself (and Meal Planning)
  • I had to just do it.  Regardless of what I came up with for excuses as to why it didn't work or wouldn't work, I just had to do it.
  • I followed to a tee what I could find for an outline of a meal plan.  I could see what may or may not work for us, but I told myself to just do it the way it was written for a few weeks before making adjustments.  What I found was that some of what I thought I wanted to change I now had appreciation for and kept it in place.
  • When we didn't want to eat what was scheduled, or I had accidentally forgotten to purchase an ingredient (or two) for that nights meal, we ate it anyway.  No more throwing our hands in the air and defaulting to take-out.  Nope, we knew we would live through it and so we ate what was planned.
  • I fought against having a cash budget for grocery shopping but it wasn't until I finally gave in and converted that I met my budget - every.  single.  week.
  • It was just the two of us, so I asked my husband every week when meal planning for the following week, for ideas.  This way, if he was less than thrilled with a meal choice he knew he had the ability to offer a different suggestion but didn't.  It encouraged him to participate.
  • On that same note, I've always tried to throw in one of his favorite meals and one of my favorite meals each week.  Also, if either of us really does not like a particular meal any longer, it either gets adjusted (if that works) or gets dropped from the rotation.

How We Freed Up Extra Money From Our Already Tight Budget

I've written complete posts about the process of meal planning which you can find here and here.  Rather than rewriting all of that, instead I'll share how some of the specifics of meal planning worked in our financial favor. (more on this in the "How To Cut Your Grocery Bill In Half" post)

I'm embarrassed to tell you, but before this process we were (easily) spending $140.00 - $200.00 per week on groceries and take-out.  For two people. Initially I aimed to cut our weekly budget to $100.00 per week but quickly found I could shave off more, allowing even more money toward our outstanding credit card debt.  I settled on $60.00 per week.  (food items only - excludes paper towels or toiletries)

Some weeks were easier than others but I'm so happy we were able to do that.  I bring back the strict $60.00 per week anytime we are trying to save extra money, in fact I just did it a few years ago.  Because we now grow quite a large garden in summer and put up much of the excess for use throughout the year, without trying our new "normal" budget now is between $60.00 and $80.00 per week.
  • I meal planned one week at a time.  Some elect to meal plan for a month at a time, but it was too much time for me to work with and felt overwhelming, so I worked on the next week every single week.
  • Shopping my pantry first was key.  Trying to plan meals around what you already have on hand, even if it's just a few items, will definitely save you money.
  • Shopping store sales was the next big money saver.  I rarely used/use coupons.  I made time to shop at more than one store and, therefore, take advantage of lower prices.  For example, I rarely shop at Price Chopper, one of our larger grocery stores, because their prices on the foods we eat are higher than most other stores.  But I added them into our store rotation if they had items on sale that I could incorporate into our meals, or, if they had rock-bottom pricing on items I could stockpile.
  • Freeing up $5- $10/week for stockpiling was crucial for long-term success.  What I found was if I increased my weekly budget for the first month to $70.00/week and used at least $10.00/week just for stockpiling, then I would have some items in our pantry and freezer to use going forward.  I was then able to lower my budget on month 2 back to $60.00/week and still dedicate $5-$10.00/week toward stockpiling because I was pulling more food from our now well-stocked pantry and freezer.

  • In that one month I was able to stock up on some seriously discounted ground beef, chicken quarters, and bought a huge bulk bag of rice as well as a selection of inexpensive frozen vegetables.  I was able to use these items for the next couple of months to reduce our weekly expenses as I worked at stocking up on additional items.  This became a cycle of stocking up when items were at rock-bottom and shopping not necessarily for the next week's menu, but for stocking up as well.  My pantry and freezer became an integral part of our ability to save and eat inexpensively.
  • We ate out 1-2 times per month so we didn't feel deprived.  They were pre-determined times so I was able to plan much of the remainder of the week's meals from our pantry and freezer.
  • We didn't expect to eat a lot of organic foods or gourmet meals (although if you look for sales and cook with cheaper ingredients we found that we often could get organic).  There are some ingredients I just wouldn't buy if I couldn't find the organic version cheap enough (celery, potatoes, strawberries, etc.) or items I wouldn't buy if I couldn't get rock-bottom pricing (cold cereal) and many new recipes I elected not to try because of their list of expensive ingredients.  Once I was able to create a nicely stocked pantry I could afford to spend a tad more on produce when needed.
  • We ate some meatless meals although my husband was/is not a fan.  So, I learned to make meat a side and veggies the main part of the meal.  Using meat in dishes alongside rice, pasta, or quinoa also helps because you can reduce, significantly, how much meat you use.  I did not cook soup (a notoriously cheaper option) for dinners because he just wouldn't eat it.
  • I learned to use only inexpensive cuts of meats.  And I almost always use any bones to make my own broth (use your slow-cooker, it's easy and hands-free).  I also used primarily in-season fruit and veggies as well as frozen veggies.  Both were usually the cheapest options.
  • We ate fairly basic meals.  The more ingredients in a meal usually, the higher the cost.  It would also mean I would have to stock more spices, etc. and I didn't have the budget to do that.  Instead, focusing on a few basic spices (basil, oregano, thyme, garlic powder, onion powder, turmeric & ginger are our favorites) to keep stocked in my pantry worked to add flavor to our meals and not kill our budget.
  • I eventually built a rotation of 30-40 meals that we liked and fit within our budget.  I did so by trying one new recipe every couple of weeks.  This way we were still trying something new but it wasn't killing our budget.
  • We used up our leftovers and sometimes cooked to intentionally get leftovers.  My husband was previously completely against leftovers but I eventually found he would eat them for lunch, not dinner.  So I began planning them in that manner.

Our Budget & Debt Payoff Structure
So the first thing we did was to stop using the credit cards.

The next task, which I really did not want to do (but quickly realized it was essential) was we tracked ALL of our spending for two months.  All of it.  Every check, every charge (debit), every dollar and every penny spent as cash.  All of it.  I put everything into categories so we could see what we spend.  Although I wasn't really surprised, I was upset, I guess, to see the total dollars we spent in some categories.

The next step was to implement a budget.  Oh how I hated it.  And oh how I, after finally getting used to it, wished I'd always had it.

We used a zero-based budget.  Basically, it's a budget that takes the total income you make and allocates every single dollar to some bill or category until you're left with a $0.00 at the end.  It essentially gives every dollar a name/job.  (Dave Ramsey has a brief description here) It looks like this:

Total Monthly Income -minus- Expenses (bills, necessities, tax, etc.) = $0.00

All of our extra money was thrown at our debt.

Every.  Single.  Dollar.

It initially felt like this was going to take FOREVER..... but eventually, once we started making some headway, we could see it working.  And that made us try even harder and make even more cuts wherever we could.

We used a cash budget for categories we were typically overspending in.  Groceries, Eating Out, Fun, & Clothing were our basic categories.  When you use cash and don't allow yourself to use a debit/credit card as back-up, you are not only more aware of what you're spending your money on but you are now prevented from over-spending.

We followed Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University.  The baby steps we used to pay off debt were: save $1,000 for our emergency starter fund and then pay off all debt (except mortgage) using the snowball method.

Where We Are Today
  • We no longer use a structured budget.  Wait, what???  No, we don't spend mindlessly, instead what we've found is that we don't spend much at all so there's no need to budget.  As I've written about previously, one of the benefits I didn't anticipate from our debt journey was I found this little concept called contentment.  
  • We've reduced our needs and wants.  And we've been able to properly identify which is which, unlike earlier in our journey.
  • We think through all of our purchases, leaning toward frugality and trying to make do with what we have.  If we do have a moment of "I would like this" we add it to our online cart and think about it for a day or two, or, if it's at a brick-and-mortar store, think about it for a day or two before taking the plunge.  There is much more thought now than there ever was about spending money.  We also try to pre-plan our large purchases and save up for them (furniture, new tires for a vehicle, etc.).  If absolutely needed, we will use money from our emergency fund to fund an actual emergency (auto repair or appliance replacement).
  • When we were looking for a home in the country (our current home) to purchase, we only looked at those well below what we were approved for.  Well, I take that back.  I gave in to my husband's request after looking at a TON of disgusting homes in our self-appointed budget and we looked at one within the amount we were approved for.  I felt like I was getting hives just walking around the property.  The property was absolutely beautiful complete with a stream and bridge but the home still needed work, even though we would be close to maxing out our mortgage approval.  Honestly, all I could think about was the monthly payment.  If we hadn't made the choice we ultimately made, we would not have been able to start our business or work for ourselves until the mortgage was paid off.
  • We are working feverishly at paying off our mortgage.  We've had obstacles like everyone, so just when you feel like you're getting somewhere a bump in the road appears.  We've learned that there's always a way around it and that it's always temporary.
  • We started and grew a business completely debt-free.  It wasn't easy, we were both working full-time while doing it, but it is sooooo worth it.
  • We live (well) on a lot less than we'd thought would be comfortable for us.  This has allowed us to work for ourselves and keep our business small as we'd hoped to do.
  • We grow a lot of our own vegetables.  Preserving excess for use throughout the year is a big part of our summer and fall.  Additionally, we raise chickens for eggs.  Selling the excess pays for the chickens expenses so, ultimately, we consume the eggs for no cost, just our labor only.  We try to purchase our remaining produce and meats locally as well.  Using meat as a side or not the main ingredient makes it easier to afford to do this.
  • I meal plan monthly instead of weekly or, as I've written about our recent change, don't meal plan at all.  Stockpiling and preserving are such a regular part of our lives now that it's a lot easier to plan ahead regularly.
  • We still use cash envelopes for 2 categories: food and chickens.  The food is mostly because I want to ensure we never go back to mindless spending on this.  Most meals are made from scratch at home although we do eat out once every month or two.  The chickens envelope is because we sell their eggs and what we make goes to pay for their expenses so I keep it separate.
  • We don't have credit cards.  We did end up opening one a few years after our debt was paid off as a "just in case" card.  We had not yet built up a proper emergency fund.  Then, when Oliver needed emergency surgery #2, we leaned on the card.  We didn't rack up too much before we realized we were doing the exact same thing again.  We cut it up, paid it off within a few months, and have never taken another again.

We would love to hear your own tips and tricks for paying off your debt and living frugally and debt-free!

Additional Resources
Here are a few resources that may be helpful to you if you are on your own debt-paying and/or expense reduction journey.

The Total Money Makeover
The Total Money Makeover Workbook
The Tightwad Gazette
America's Cheapest Family
Cut Your Grocery Bill In Half
Your Money Or Your Life
Dining On A Dime Cookbook
(affiliate links)

Websites/Blogs (financial/frugality/homemaking):
Dave Ramsey
The Budget Mom
Thrifty Frugal Mom
No Getting Off This Train
Frugal Farm Wife
The Fundamental Home
Our Next Life
Our Simple And Meaningful Life
One Frugal Girl


Kathy said...

It's a great credit to you both to work together to pay off debt as we all know it's not fun because it's money already spent...not like saving up for something new and fun. Cash for groceries is the best budgeting tip there is and I'm going back to this myself. I did it for years but have got out of the habit. I do have a food budget however I have been going over. Food in Australia is more expensive than the states. Tracey Edwards did a video I watched the other day comparing the price of our groceries with the UK and USA and some items were similar however over all ours could be twice as much. At the moment I would like to spend $175 per week [including shampoo and toiletries etc] however realistically it's more like $200. I think overall $200 per week if you count all the school holidays the food budget goes up so average of $200. It's a lot that's for sure. We don't spend any money on my kids school tuck shop and so that includes school lunches breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner - all home made. We eat out once a year - we simply do not have the budget for eating out. I would really love to grow more veggies and I weeded the garden this week and off to buy some seedlings today. It's tiny however not paying for herbs and lettuce and spring onions still saves a lot of money each week. I would love to have a bigger garden for more continuous supply however I work with what we have. Great post Staci and well done to the both of you. Kathy, Brisbane, Australia

daisy g said...

I love the structured way you set yourselves up for success. We have been so fortunate to have never had a mortgage since we've been married, and that has allowed us great freedom.
Now that our son is getting disability for groceries, we spend about $80 a week and I am able to buy everything organic. Such a blessing.

I always enjoy hearing about the way you do things. They make so much sense. Continued blessings on your way to being debt-free!

Kathy said...

Staci I replied to your comment on my blog however I thought I would also post it here for you. The focaccia recipe is 400gms lukewarm water + 7gms dry yeast + 20gms olive oil + 500gms bakers flour [ie strong bread flour] + a pinch of salt for the dough then on top fresh rosemary and sea salt. I have a thermomix however you could use a food processor or mix master. Place water, yeast and oil in a bowl and mix for 5 seconds on speed 6. Add flour and salt and mix for 20 seconds on speed 6. Set the dial to closed lid position and knead for 2 minutes on interval speed [you can do this by hand for 5-6 minutes]. Remove dough from bowl and allow to rise in a warm place for 1 hour. Knock down and shape and allow to rise for another 30 minutes. Once this is done garnish with extra virgin oilive oil, rosemary and sea salt and bake in hot oven at 200-220c for 20-30 minutes. Kathy, Brisbane, Australia

Staci at Life At Cobble Hill Farm said...

Thank you so much Kathy. That's great that you are able to at least grow a few things to help offset your grocery budget. Yes, cash for groceries is the best, isn't it?

Daisy - thank you so much! What a wonderful blessing for the two of you to have never had a mortgage since you've been married. Good for you!!!